'It still feels a little surreal': St. John's basketball coach Pat McKenzie talks NCAA Tournament, Covid-19

Coronavirus has changed everything in the sports world, it even shut down March Madness before we could have a Selection Sunday.

Locally, St. John’s was set to host St. Thomas in the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 about two weeks ago. The MIAC rivals were going to battle for a trip to the Elite 8, the first time that’s happened between the programs since 1993. It would've been the fourth time the two teams met this season. Then, the NCAA shut everything down amid the Coronavirus pandemic. A season over without its own finality.

Pat McKenzie’s squad finished the season 27-2, 19-1 in the MIAC and the conference tournament champions. Fox 9’s Jeff Wald caught up with McKenzie this week to talk about having to deliver his team the tough news, and how he’s moving forward amid the Covid-19 crisis.

What are you doing to stay busy now that you’re stuck at home?

We’ve got three kids, so that does it. That’s about all, outside of the hoops stuff, it’s trying to round up kids and keep them entertained and try to do our best to keep them sane and off each other’s throats basically. It’s been an adjustment for sure, but it could be a lot worse. The flip side is you’re around your kids and family a lot more, get to spend some time with them when otherwise you might not be able to.

How has working from home changed your approach as a head coach?

You try not to let it change you too much. Certainly the dynamic does change, just getting used to working from home. All the sudden you need a pen or a notepad, print something off and you’re used to being able to do that in a second. You’ve got to rethink some of those little things a little bit. For the most part, the office stuff stays the same. I’ve got a computer, I can watch film review clips, all that stuff is fairly handy. I’ve got my phone so I can still make recruiting calls, operate the same way. What’s a little different is just being able to go out and recruit in person. Not being at a state tournament this year, the AAU season typically would be kicking off here pretty soon. Some of that is going to be really different. I think everybody in our position is just interested to see what’s next, how does this thing play out, where do we go from here? None of us are alone in that regard.

How do you keep in touch with your players?

We’re doing some Zoom meetings. We didn’t have an opportunity to have our exit meetings this year. Obviously it was a strange end to season. One minute you think you’re getting ready to play St. Thomas, the next minute you find out the NCAA Tournament is canceled. Then you have that meeting to sort of break that to your guys, and at that meeting we just said hey, we’re going to start our exit stuff next week and all the sudden there is no next week. We’re now Zooming with our guys, trying to get that portion of our season wrapped up. You try to stay in touch with them, whether it’s texting them, finding ways to stay connected.

What do you have them do to stay in shape?

They’re on their own, they’ve got to figure that out. It’s unprecedented times. There was an article in the Strib about gym rats getting to a park or finding places to get their work in. You hope your guys are doing that and finding ways to get creative to still be able to work on their games. We’ve got a strength and conditioning coach that can keep in touch with those guys, and he is. That’s campus-wide.

How are your players doing mentally?

Pretty good. I think that adjustment to the online class piece is going to be really interesting and at times a little bit difficult. From the guys we’ve been able to talk to, they’ve said it’s going well. It’s something they’re going to be able to manage.

What was the week of practice like leading up to the game with the uncertainty around Coronavirus?

Fortunately for us, our group was a fairly focused group. That was definitely a strong suit of our team this year. We just kind of went about our business. As other sites started to limit the number of people that could attend or play in front of no one, I think for us it started to get real. It was kind of this foreign virus that you knew about, but I don’t know that we necessarily felt an impact. All the sudden it became a little more real. We got word Wednesday night that they were going to limit the number of attendees. It was odd, but we thought at least we get to play. That night is when the dominoes began to fall with the NBA and the NHL. You just thought there’s no way we’re finishing this. We spend all day Thursday getting ready for St. Thomas and yet in the back of your mind, you’re thinking is this really going to happen? But what other choice do you have, you’ve got to prepare.

What was your reaction when you learned the game was canceled and how did you tell your team?

It was surreal, it still feels a little surreal. There’s no playbook on that one. That’s tough being in front of your guys trying to break them the news, and I think we all understood there’s a bigger picture here. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a hard way to end a season, disappointing. I’m probably not that great at those sort of moments anyhow. I didn’t know what to say. Basically just kind of filled them in with the information that we had, wanted to congratulate them on a great year and thank our seniors in particular for what they’ve done. It was just a very odd and surreal setting to sort of be in.

Would it have been any better than facing St. Thomas for a trip to the Elite 8?

When you’re in it, you’re getting ready for the game and just in that mode. I think looking back, that would’ve been pretty cool. The place sold out in 13 minutes. It is our rival and with the changes coming for them in our league, we don’t have a lot of opportunities left. So it was pretty cool that here we are again and we get another crack to go at it. There’s a lot on the line and, I think win or lose no matter what happened in that game, every one of those guys on either team, that’s a heck of an experience and a fun experience. One side wasn’t going to be thrilled with the outcome, nevertheless that would’ve been a terrific experience to be in. That doesn’t happen often, it was too bad.

You went 19-1 in the MIAC this season. What was special about this group?

We’ve had good players, that’s it. We’ve been really fortunate to have really good players the last number of years. We’ve had a lot of talent, and they’re great teammates. I know that sounds corny, but that’s the truth. You have a lot of talent, you’re going to win games. If that talent happens to play together and share the same values, you’ve got a chance to win a lot of games. Fortunately for us, we’ve had that and it’s been fun to be a part of that.

You’re 81-19 in 5 seasons in the MIAC. What do you attribute all the success to?

It starts with talent, it just does and we’ve had it. That’s the main ingredient, hands down. If they’re willing to sacrifice, willing to be about winning, you’ve got a chance to be really good. We’ve had that and that’s been fun to be around. It’s just a group of really good players that are focused and care really about, they just want to win. As a result, it’s been a fun run the last couple of years.

You were a St. John’s point guard. What does being the head coach of the program mean to you?

It’s fun. There’s certainly something about being at your alma mater. St. John’s has been a terrific place for me. So to have it be able to continue to be a special place is really neat. It affords me the opportunity, I know so much of the place and of the history of our program and of the guys that have come before us. I just have over the years developed a great appreciation for what St. John’s basketball has been to so many. To be the steward of that program now is special.

What did you learn from Jim Smith on the way to taking over the program?

I’ve been really fortunate. If you know Smitty, he’s a terrific guy. He’s just a great, great guy. To be able to play and work for him was terrific. I learned a lot and he kept me involved, allowed me to be involved in a lot. When you take over a program, I was fortunate. St. John’s basketball was in good shape, it wasn’t like we had to tear the thing down and start from scratch. I was very fortunate to not have a complete rebuild, and also fortunate that you have a guy that he’s in your corner. There’s never been a time where you feel like he’s looking over your shoulder or second guessing. None of that. He’s been my biggest fan and St. John’s basketball’s biggest fan through the entire time. That’s made the transition a lot easier.

They didn't know it at the time, but St. John's beating UW-Eau Claire in the round of 32 was the finale collegiate give for five Johnnies seniors.